ArticlePDF Available

Review of Heritage Language Policies around the World. C. A. Seals & S. Shah (Eds.). Heritage Language Journal, 16(1), 120-123.

120 Heritage Language Journal, 16(1)
April, 2019
Heritage Language Policies around the World. (2018).
Corinne A. Seals and Sheena Shah (Eds.)
New York, NY: Routledge
Reviewed by Ava Becker, University of British Columbia
In this trailblazing volume, editors Corinne A. Seals and Sheena Shah join a unique group of
authors with wide-ranging expertise in heritage languages (HLs) to examine the visibility, status,
policies, and efforts pertaining to heritage languages in 15 countries spanning five regions
(Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australasia). Each chapter focuses on up to five minority/heritage
languages and addresses, to varying degrees, these core questions:
Are heritage languages included or excluded from the national language policy discourse?
What are the successes and shortcomings of efforts to establish heritage language policies?
What is the definition of “heritage language” in official usage by the local/regional
government and stakeholders?
How are these language policies perceived by the actual heritage language communities?
The perennial question of how to define HLs and their speakers is central to Seals’ and Shaw’s
ambitious global project. Following Fishman (1999, 2001) (who wrote in the U.S. context), their
expanded definition of HLs includes Indigenous, colonial, and immigrant languages, and
emphasizes HL speakers’ agency in determining whether they identify as heritage speakers
(Hornberger & Wang, 2008). Having published and researched extensively on HLs, endangered,
and minoritized languages, Seals and Shaw explain their decision to include those three groups of
minoritized languages in their definition to recognize “that languages do not have to be either one
thing or the other [e.g., “immigrant” or “heritage”]; they can be both…. and often [are], both at
once” (p. 3). Indeed, as they point out, 10 of the 15 chapters in this book focus on Indigenous
languages (e.g., Indigenous languages in Canada, Irish Gaelic in Ireland, Amazigh in Morocco,
Jujueo in South Korea, Te Reo Maori in New Zealand).
The volume’s well-researched, illustrative case studies are useful for anyone looking to deepen
their understanding of minoritized languages around the world and the overt and covert policies
that govern them. It was undoubtedly a significant feata “labor of love,” as Seals and Shaw write
in the acknowledgementsto compile such a thoroughly diverse volume while maintaining a
sense of coherence throughout. Each chapter is clearly written and carefully researched by authors
with a range of expertise in HL-related professions (professors, language activists, community
leaders, research center directors). Each chapter provides important background information on
the country under examination, such as relevant linguistic, demographic, and political history.
Authors discuss the usage of the term “heritage language” in their national contexts, as well as the
challenges and successes of local HL maintenance and/or revitalization efforts (e.g., through the
education system) in conversation with local language policies and/or the broader sociolinguistic
context. The primary data sources are government policy documents and statistics, although some
chapters include interviews with HL speakers. While examples of HL teaching materials are not
common (but see Chapter 11), all chapters address HL education to varying degrees. I won’t
121 Heritage Language Journal, 16(1)
April, 2019
attempt to capture the complexity of each chapter in this review, nor will I provide succinct
summaries as this would duplicate the work of the editors in their introduction to the volume (see
pp. 4-8). In what follows, I will instead highlight some of the recurrent themes with examples from
most of the chapters.
Throughout the volume, the effectiveness of bottom-up versus top-down language policies is
discussed with some frequency. In Fuller and Torres’s (Chapter 2) discussion of Spanish in the
United States, they make the compelling argument for “a more bottom-up approach to policy
reform” in light of “the ingrained national US policies and ideologies that are mostly biased
towards normative monolingual practices” (p. 23). Writing from their research and experience on
the First Peoples’ Cultural Council in Canada, Gessner, Herbert, and Parker (Chapter 3) also
advocate for bottom-up policies, albeit for different reasons: “First Nations communities and
language speakers cannot wait for top-down policies to support their work and must move ahead
with grassroots level, community-based policies to ensure the vitalization of their languages (p.
39). Their point speaks to the urgency of revitalization efforts in the case of indigenous languages
with particular poignancy. In her chapter, Banfi (Chapter 4) acknowledges the vital role that
grassroots initiatives have played in the survival of heritage languages in Argentina, but argues
that “it is high time the efforts were recognized and supported by different levels of government
and social institutions” (p. 62). Writing from the context of New Zealand, in Chapter 14, Seals and
Olsen-Reeder examine the federal government’s differential treatment of Māori, Samoan, and
Ukrainian. While they call for the recognition of all HLs in national language policy, crucially,
they acknowledge that Māori occupies a different place than other HLs in the country’s history (p.
231), and that the special consideration and support afforded to Māori was “spurred not by
government action but by bottom-up activism from those within the heritage language group” (p.
While most chapters call for greater governmental involvement (through policy, resources, etc.) in
HL maintenance and revitalization, two chapters propose a more whole-society approach. For
instance, in their examination of Amazigh (Berber) in Morocco, El Kirat El Allame and Boussagui
(Chapter 8) note that although Amazigh enjoys various degrees of official recognition, high
visibility (in the arts, etc.), and fairly widespread usage, it competes with Standard Arabic, French,
and now English for prestige. The authors argue for “prestige planning” (p. 121) based on their
historical view: “language shift was resorted to for practical and pragmatic reasons; the same
reasons will reverse the tide and motivate language maintenance” (p. 124). A similar case can be
found with the indigenous language of Jejueo in South Korea (Chapter 12), where the recognition
of their cultural heritage and folklore globally is helping islanders to take pride in their language
again, but Brenzinger and Yang conclude: “Most important, meaningful roles for Jejueo have to
be established with financial and social incentives” (196)a point that underscores the limitations
of positive attitudes and identity in language maintenance and revitalization, and points to more
multifaceted solutions.
Several chapters noted the role of English and other immigrant languages as a complicating factor
in local language maintenance. In Sweden, for instance, despite the existence of the Minority
Languages Charter (2000), which recognizes five official minority languages (Finnish, Meänkieli,
Yiddish, Romany, and Sami) Ekberg (Chapter 6) concludes by questioning the feasibility of
supporting multiple minority languages when the pervasiveness of English in Sweden threatens
122 Heritage Language Journal, 16(1)
April, 2019
the vitality of Swedish itself. The purchase that English has in Swedish society is important when
discussing the maintenance of other minority languages because “in the Swedish versus English
discourse, other languages are essentially invisible” (p. 93). Certainly, English threatens the
national language in many contexts, eclipsing HLs. Laoire writes of a similar problem in his
chapter on minority and heritage languages in Ireland (Chapter 7). While Irish Gaelic is the
country’s official language, it is only spoken by 5% of the population. Indeed, there are more
speakers of Polish than there are of Irish, which raises questions about the affordances and
limitations of language policy in preventing or reversing indigenous language shift in an era of
increasing migration. On the other hand, according to Nakayiza (Chapter 10), Luganda has no
official status but is the most-spoken indigenous language in Uganda, spoken by more than 1/3 of
the population (p. 152), and it appears to be returning to prominence after a period of English
dominance in the country (p. 159).
Language attitudes and pragmatic beliefs about language use are another area of focus in this
volume. In chapter 11, Heinrich and Ishihara discuss the history and prognosis of the Ryukyuan
languages in Japan, which are indigenous languages with no written form or standard variety. The
shift to Japanese was the result of the Japanese “modernization” (p. 168) project. While “young
non-speakers of Ryukyuan languages show great affection and positive attitudes towards them”
(p. 167), Japan’s language policies, which focus exclusively on Japanese, are increasingly
becoming out of tune and incoherent with language attitudes and uses in the Ryukyus” (p. 180).
Liddicoat’s Chapter (15) examines the impact of Australia’s language-in-education policy on
Indigenous and immigrant languages. Liddicoat notes that although indigenous languages are
taught in some schools, they don’t tend to be sought out as often as immigrant languages, “as these
languages do not enter into dominant narratives of the utility of languages” (p. 250). Shah and Jain
(Chapter 13) examine the heritage language maintenance situation of Gujarati in Singapore.
Singapore has compulsory bilingual education in English and one of the country’s mandated
mother tongue languages (Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil). Despite the inclusive tenor of this policy,
the selection of one mother tongue for China and India respectively is problematic, as each is a
highly diverse country both linguistically and culturally. Tamil may be a more pragmatic choice
for many Indians, but Gujarati remains an important identity marker for some Gujarati youth.
Shameem’s chapter (16) on Fiji Hindi in Fiji profiles “the language of girmitya descendants
indentured laborers brought to Fiji by the British to work on sugar and cotton plantations from
1870-1920” (p. 254). Indo-Fijians consider Fiji Hindi indigenous to Fiji, which is an important
complication to the immigrant/indigenous binary that dominates the HL literature. In Fiji, the
government recognizes its linguistic history, but doesn’t make efforts to support it. Nevertheless,
the Fiji Hindi speaking community has positive attitudes toward the language and it constitutes an
important identity marker for them. While the future of Fijian Hindi is uncertain and requires
greater presence in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, Shameem ends the chapter on a hopeful
note about its current usage: “The recent resurgence of interest and use in social media and film is
a good sign” (p. 265).
The volume would make a solid addition to university syllabi in undergraduate and graduate
courses with an interest in language and power (e.g., in sociology, political science, history,
education, and sociolinguistics, among other related disciplines). In my view, the organization of
the volume leaves ample possibilities for further engagement with the text itself through
123 Heritage Language Journal, 16(1)
April, 2019
reflective/writing assignments for students. For instance, the book was not necessarily intended to
be read from start to finish, but it could be. Particularly following such detailed descriptions of
local contexts, students could be asked to write an afterword or some sort of concluding discussion
to help focus and guide the class discussion. A short paragraph discussing the chapters of each
region in relation to one another could serve a similar purpose. The similarities across regions
could be fruitfully addressed with some thoughtful commentary. Students could also be asked to
come up with discussion questions, annotated bibliographies for further reading, or to create a
website, blog, or a volume-themed social media account that would enhance the book’s
accessibility to a broader readership (e.g., teacher education programs, community language
teachers, government officials, parents).
The case studies in this book will present researchers across disciplines with points of resonance
in their own contexts, and also fertile ground for further research. Personally, the editors’
introduction raised many important conceptual questions for me, which I might pursue in my own
All in all, Seals and Shah have compiled an immensely useful text that is sure to provoke important
conversations about HL policy around the world.
Fishman, J. A. (1999). Handbook of language and ethnic identity. Oxford, UK: Oxford University
Fishman, J. A. (2001). 300-plus years of heritage language education in the United States. In J. K.
Peyton, D. A. Ranard, and S. McGinnis (Eds.), Heritage languages in America: Preserving a
national resource (pp. 8197). Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
Hornberger, N. H., & Wang, S. C. (2008). Who are our heritage language learners? Identity and
biliteracy in heritage language education in the United States. In D. M. Brinton, O. Kagan, and
S. Bauckus (Eds.), Heritage language education: A new field emerging (pp. 338). New York,
NY: Routledge.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
300-plus years of heritage language education in the United States
  • J A Fishman
Fishman, J. A. (2001). 300-plus years of heritage language education in the United States. In J. K. Peyton, D. A. Ranard, and S. McGinnis (Eds.), Heritage languages in America: Preserving a national resource (pp. 81-97). Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.